Utah lawmakers who approved luxury ski resort took $100k in donations from developer

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, both Military Installation Development Authority board members, have received thousands of dollars from the Mayflower developer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extell's Mayflower Resort development in Park City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. Utah lawmakers who approved luxury ski resort took $100k in campaign donations from the developer.

When New York City-based luxury developer Extell broke ground on the Mayflower Resort in 2021, owner Gary Barnett and Utah Senate President Stuart Adams stood side-by-side for a photo, each clutching a ceremonial prospecting pickax — a nod to the resort’s namesake silver and gold mine.

Adams’ influence on the project goes beyond his legislative power. The lawmaker also chairs Utah’s Military Installation Development Authority (MIDA), the quasi-government entity that is helping finance the Mayflower project and has the power to approve or reject various aspects of it along the way.

The Salt Lake Tribune identified $112,500 in donations to Senate Republican leadership that are connected to Barnett in the five years since Extell began partnering with MIDA in 2018. Nearly three-fourths of that cash has gone directly to Adams or political action committees he leads. When Adams and Barnett posed with others at the groundbreaking, the Senate president had already accepted nearly $30,000 of that money.

An expansive ski area could eventually triple the size of Deer Valley Resort. The development on the slopes west of Jordanelle Reservoir is expected to earn billions by 2030, according to MIDA’s projections.

MIDA’s involvement in the project sprung out of a 26-acre parcel of land that Congress handed from the Bureau of Land Management to the Air Force in 2002 after the military branch lost a ski lodge at Snowbasin when the resort expanded for the Winter Olympics. Under state law, MIDA can plan and oversee developments that have a military purpose.

The purpose of the land, that year’s Defense Authorization Act said, was “for development of an armed forces recreation facility.” Military members will be given “a daily block of preferred reservations” in one of the seven hotels being built at the resort, and they will be charged a discounted rate, according to MIDA.

(Todd Cromar | U.S. Air Force) From left, former Utah governor Gary Herbert, Extell owner Gary Barnett, Senate President Stuart Adams, 75th Air Base Wing commander Col. Jenise Carroll and Wasatch County Commissioner Steve Farrell during a ground breaking ceremony June 9, 2021, for the Mayflower Mountain Resort at Park City.

Adams isn’t the only state senator who sits on MIDA’s board. Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, is also on the board and chairs the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee, which leads lawmakers in creating the state’s annual budget. Over the last two years, Stevenson’s campaign has received $11,000 from Extell, Barnett and his family.

The largest individual donation in the bunch — $6,000 from EX Utah Development LLC, Extell’s Utah-based corporation, to the Utah Republican Senate Campaign Committee — came one week after Deer Valley publicly announced that it had reached an agreement with Extell to operate the ski terrain at Mayflower Resort.

In addition to the dozens of Senate Republican contributions, Extell has donated just over $10,000 to Utah House Republicans. And earlier this year, Barnett and his wife gave $20,000 to Gov. Spencer Cox.

Giving to Utah Republicans — or any Republicans, for that matter — is a relatively new practice for Barnett. In the last two decades, he’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic causes across the country, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

“In the state of Utah, we can look around and there’s a clear understanding of the importance of the Republican Party here, and particularly President Stuart Adams,” said Brooke Hontz, the vice president of development at Extell, in an interview.

While Hontz noted she didn’t have specific details about the Barnetts’ contributions, she said, “The Republican Party has done a phenomenal job here of managing and supporting Utah through good government practices. So I could see why Extell, and Gary [Barnett], would want to support the party and the individuals who have been sustaining Utah and leading us over a long period of time.”

Do donations make a difference?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extell's Mayflower Resort development in Park City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

Adams told The Tribune in an email that, “Campaign contributions do not impact nor influence any of my decisions or votes.”

“Economic development has been and will continue to be a priority for the state,” the Senate president added. “MIDA has positively impacted our state, including with some of Utah’s most significant economic developments, including Falcon Hill Aerospace Research Park, Northrop Grumman missile defense program, the NSA Data Center at Camp Williams and the military recreation center at the Mayflower Resort.”

And although the contributions came from a company directly profiting from its “public-private partnership” with MIDA, Stevenson said the donations have not swayed his decisions either.

“I don’t know that the donation from the Barnetts has been any heavier than it has from other places,” Stevenson said during an interview. “You know, I handle a lot of alcohol legislation here in Utah, and I get checks from entities that are involved in alcohol. I don’t think that influences my vote. I think I’ve always tried to put legislation together that was for the right reason.”

Both Adams and Stevenson have served on MIDA’s board, as chair and vice chair, respectively, since the entity was created in 2007. The pair joined the Legislature in 2010. Of the seven-member board, Utah law says five are appointed by the governor, one is appointed by the House speaker and one is appointed by the Senate president.

Adams is currently self-appointed, according to the state’s boards and commissions website. The website does not list a House speaker selection.

In the 14 sessions Stevenson has served in the Utah Capitol, he has introduced a dozen bills tweaking MIDA statute. Those changes have made MIDA “tremendously effective,” he said.

“I don’t think we envisioned some of the things that have taken place,” Stevenson said. To accomplish some of its larger goals, from developing the west side of Hill Air Force Base to building a massive ski resort expansion, the senator added, the laws governing MIDA had to be adjusted.

MIDA influence in local development

During a September interim legislative committee meeting at Utah Tech University in St. George, Paul Morris, the executive director and general counsel for MIDA, told lawmakers that Extell bought some of the land where the resort is located years ago, but faced too many infrastructure-related barriers to develop it.

“Extell Corporation came into the state of Utah and purchased the property and they read the MIDA law and they said there’s no way we can make that work without using the MIDA resources,” Morris said.

Hontz echoed that sentiment in an interview with The Tribune, saying, “Gary has said that … he wouldn’t even consider coming to Utah without the MIDA jurisdiction, and their ability with public finance, assessments, all of those elements financially set the baseline for this project.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extell's Mayflower Resort development in Park City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

MIDA is slated to get involved in more ski resort projects in the lead-up to a likely second Winter Olympics in Utah next decade. Last week, the board voted to help build a $35 million lodge at Sundance Mountain Resort, which has said it will provide a program for wounded veterans.

“Sometimes people asked me, ‘How is it two senators, our chair and vice chair, are sitting on the MIDA board?’” Morris said at the fall committee meeting in southern Utah. “Neither one of them were senators when they were appointed to the MIDA board 15 years ago. They’re two of our original board members … and they’ve stayed on because of their commitment to the military, their commitment to what we are trying to do here.”